In the 2006 midterm elections and the 2008 presidential race, the independent female voter was reliably Democratic, helping to usher in Democratic majorities in Congress and to elect Barack Obama. Women typically favor Democrats, but in 2010 they voted for Republicans by a slim margin, and the Democrats lost control of the House.
In a presidential race, women voters generally care more about the character of a candidate than men do, said Mandel. Key to that measure is a candidate's consistency, a quality that Romney has struggled with as he changes his stances. Mandel suggested that while Santorum has taken more extreme positions on women's issues — such as suggesting that men would lose control of their emotions if they fought with women on the front lines of war — he has at least been convincing in what he believes in.
"The abortion issue hurts you more in the campaign if you're seen to change your mind as the winds of the election blow over you, and make you realize that you're going to be caught out in the cold, because the voters aren't in the same place you are," Mandel said.
Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, wrote this week that Republicans can win back women by flatly calling Limbaugh's recent comments inappropriate, and by acknowledging their wary standing with the party right now.
"Women need to be reassured that the Republican Party does not believe in dictating women's reproductive choices for them," she wrote.
Lake said that according to her polling, women have shifted back toward the center since the 2010 midterms and are leaning toward Democrats, helped in no small part by the GOP candidates' fixation on female social issues.
"Usually, independent women do not pay a bit of attention to primaries of either party," she said. "These guys have succeeded in gaining their attention, which is pretty miraculous."